Downtime

Following the Money

Why I’m addicted to stalking friends’ transactions on Venmo

GIF: scrolling through Venmo transactions.
Lisa Larson-Walker

Rabbit Holes is a recurring series in which writers pay homage to the diversity and ingenuity of the ways we procrastinate now. To pitch your personal rabbit hole, email humaninterest@slate.com.

Social media addiction isn’t just for teens; I, a full-fledged adult, have the same problem. I circle through the same few apps so frequently—Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and of course, Twitter—that my fingers are trained to close one, open the next. Since I’m procrastinating on these platforms so much, though, there comes a point in the day where I’ve truly exhausted them. It’s then that I straighten up my posture, meditate for a full minute, and reach for the latest issue of the Economist.

Just kidding. It’s then that I open an app not in the “Social” folder on my iPhone, but the “Finance” folder: Venmo.

Venmo is arguably the best social media app there is. It’s a payment service app that’s attached to my Facebook account (which, given recent events, is loaded with connotations I’m not going to try to flesh out here; there is now an option to just sign up with your email, phone number, and bank information). But that means so much more than merely making it easy to pay Facebook friends back for movie tickets. No, Venmo goes above and beyond with its own feed.

The Venmo feed is like your Facebook feed that throws out all the junk—the Minions meme your godmother shared, the photo of some friend-of-a-friend’s baby—and gets to the good stuff. It shows you transactions between every Facebook friend that also uses the app … which means acquaintances, enemies, family members, former lovers, and yes, actual friends.

This is how a Venmo feed may look to some:

Screenshot from Venmo.

However, this is what runs through my head when I look at this feed:

Screenshot from Venmo with text commentary added by Slate.

It’s arguably easier to learn more here about people’s relationships than it is on Facebook. People are careful about what they put on the latter platform these days. If you’re hooking up with someone but you aren’t in an exclusive relationship, you’re probably not going to broadcast it on Facebook. Hell, it’s 2018, do many couples go Facebook Official anymore?

But couples absolutely broadcast their dates to the world on Venmo. I have found out not only who is dating, but who is living together, and who is a person’s rebound. I have discovered who has the weed hookup, which friends go to the movies every Friday night together, and a group of six that brunches every Sunday. Venmo makes it incredibly easy to keep tabs on people. This has been a revelation to my procrastination methods, but not so great for my psyche.

I use Venmo often myself, and that’s partly why I’m so invested. The option to make transactions private is proof that other people want you to see what they’re up to. For example, I use Venmo to exchange money for concert tickets. That is public. I also use Venmo to pay my therapist every week. That is private.

Venmo is like a honed-in version of Bragbook, the notion that Facebook encourages sharing all the good and none of the bad. You can’t see the new job, the engagement ring, or baby shower, as on the Facebook feed. But you can see who is on the verge of getting hitched, who remained best friends after high school and college while you may have drifted away, who moved across the country and is seemingly “killing it”—and those people curate their exchanges so you see it.

The majority of Venmo users in 2017, 4.1 million, are aged 25 to 34. The second-largest age demographic, 3.3 million, are aged 18 to 24. In a world where these people are trapped under student loan debt and unable to buy homes, these millennials and Gen Z-ers may have control of only a fraction of their income. They seem to want to have fun with their money—and show that off. And honestly, on the surface, I want to see. I am a natural gossip, like an old church lady who needs to know everybody’s business. Social media has fed this hunger without fail.

But I believe there’s something deeper to why I lose myself in Venmo like this. Maybe there were too many times in childhood that I wasn’t invited out somewhere; maybe it’s because I didn’t date a lot in college; maybe it’s because I’m a Cancer. Regardless, there’s the nagging of FOMO, that “why wasn’t I invited?” feeling that makes me keep opening the app. The link between social media and FOMO isn’t news, and that’s because it’s real.

Moreover, Venmo has an added mystery that Facebook and Instagram take away. What does the snowflake in that screenshot mean? And what is the relationship between those two people? Is the couple that had an “amazing night” on their first few dates, or have they been together long-term and I just haven’t noticed?

Plus, as someone who tries to live frugally in the very unfrugal city of New York, there is a jealousy that goes along with seeing people exchange money for drinks, food, Broadway shows, and whatever the hell 💯 is supposed to be. (…Weed?) Venmo doesn’t show monetary values on the feed, and just because people spend money doesn’t necessarily mean they have it—but all I know is that, from where I’m standing, I can’t go around making it rain for 💯.

This habit of mine is a luxe cocktail of curiosity, FOMO, and jealousy—a delicious way to waste time. Venmo started out as a distraction but as it turns out, I may soon need a distraction from Venmo itself. If you join me in finding it, maybe we can split the bill?